Sex On The Small Screen.

6 mins read

This article contains spoilers for several shows.

Sex is the most natural thing in the world, so why has it taken nearly the same amount of time that the moving image has existed for it to be shown on television screens without stigma or censorship.

Through suggestive shots of socks on doors and handprints on windows, there have long been little ways to beat the rigid guidelines placed on sex scenes.

But despite TV’s ability to represent an almost universal experience, broadcasters have shied away from sex for decades, deeming it too taboo for the small screen.

Famously when I Love Lucy star, Lucille Ball, became pregnant, the writers decided to add the pregnancy to the show’s storyline. But broadcasting regulators in the fifties banned the word ‘pregnant’ in fear of audiences thinking too much about how the beloved sitcom character got that way.

Real-life couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz weren’t even allowed to share the same bed in I Love Lucy. Image credit: Everett collection

Thankfully attitudes about sex have matured since the fifties but it’s not enough to just show sex on screen. To be considered progressive, how and who is shown to have sex is just as important.

For decades sexual pleasure appeared to be an entirely male phenomenon. Showrunners seemed to think that sex was something that simply happened to women. they endured it and they definitely didn’t enjoy it.

Popular comedies of the sixties and seventies featured wry male protagonists we’re meant to support while they harass women to the tune of scattered laugh tracks.

These shows are clearly, products of their time, but I wouldn’t suggest turning to early seasons of M*A*S*H for your sexual education.

M*A*S*H aired from 1972- 1983 on CBS. Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

By the nineties, women were finally allowed to want sex on screen, but not without having a moral conversation about it first.

When Buffy (of vampire slayer fame) loses her virginity to Angel, her long-time vampire boyfriend, in season two of the critically acclaimed show, he literally loses his soul and Buffy has to send him to hell.

One season later, when Buffy’s male sidekick, Xander loses his…. it’s played for laughs.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer created one of the most iconic feminist characters of the nineties. The writers get brownie points for letting Buffy have sex.

But, allowing the dangerous double standard surrounding virginities to prevail in popular culture, only promoted the misconception that women’s sexualities had to be morally evaluated.  

Image credit: IMDB

At this stage, there could never be accurate portrayals of sex on screen, especially for girls and women. The idea that women could want to have sex because it looked fun was still a foreign concept.

It wasn’t until 2018 that the BBC even decided it was finally time to show a female orgasm on mainstream TV in Toni Collette’s drama series Wanderlust.

All this is said before we come to the complete lack of representation for LGBTQ+ characters for years, never mind queer sex.

Nowadays, with the rise of streaming services and a more open understanding of sex, anything is possible.

From Orange Is the New Black’s portrayal of sex while incarcerated to the heartfelt and moving intimate scenes in the BBC adaption of Sally Rooney’s Normal People.

Normal people aired on BBC in 2020. Image Credit: Hulu

Shows like Sex Education can portray teenage experimentation in all its awkward glory, while simultaneously giving queer relationships and stories the screen time they so desperately deserve.

A sex revolution is taking place behind the scenes as well.

Euphoria is known for its graphic sex scenes but behind the nudity and extremely realistic foreplay is intimacy coordinated by Amanda Blumenthal. Blumenthal choreographs each scene, managing the way it looks as well as the comfort levels of the actors involved.

After years of exploitation and embarrassment for countless stars, this feels like a welcome step forward.

Sex is everywhere, we think about it, we talk about it, we plan the next time we’re going to have it. So why has it taken us so long to accurately show it?

The faster we become comfortable with sex on screen, and create safer places for the actors involved, the quicker we might learn that it isn’t such a big deal after all.

Featured image credit: HBO

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Film and Tv Editor at Brig Newspaper. Currently studying Journalism and English at the University of Stirling

1 Comment

  1. […]  The show also never spoke down to its young viewership; tackling issues such as addiction, domestic abuse, school violence, and abusive relationships in a mature and careful way. The characters were deeply complex, whether villain-turned-anti-hero Spike vying to be a better soul or Buffy herself battling depression and questioning her duties as the slayer. No matter how dark things got the gang was still there for one another and the character growth felt natural and complete.  […]

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